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John Webster Pastoralia Prayer

Grace in a Time of Coronavirus

In our current trials, painful as they are, we are being given a gift—a gift as Christians, a gift as pastors, a gift as churches and a gift as nations, if only we will take it. This time of losses, restrictions, anxieties and griefs, it also a matchless opportunity for grace.

In The Culture of Theology, John Webster invites us to take our own existence, and the situation in which we are placed, with full seriousness. He asks, ‘In what sense can theological existence be cultivated?’, and answers, ‘The first thing to say is that it can’t.’1 Although he is writing about the ‘anatomy of a theologian’, what Webster says here applies equally to our understanding of all human existence in the light of the gospel. This seems more obvious now than at any time in my lifetime. If we believed it, how refreshing it would be! It would calm our bubbling anxieties, cool our frenzied conversations, soothe our restless fears.

Why can we not cultivate our own existence? First, as Webster would insist in his later writings, because we are creatures. As God’s creatures, we have nothing of ourselves. We lack everything—even existence itself—apart from the creating and sustaining work of the Holy Trinity. We utterly depend on God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, for everything. Secondly, we are sinners. We have impoverished ourselves by recklessly casting aside God’s gifts. But blinded by our wickedness we are stubborn, proud and self-sufficient, refusing to recognise the devastation we have wrought upon ourselves.

With this in mind, we can begin to see why this global pandemic, tragic and unwelcome as it is, might be a gift of grace. Without in any way willing evil, God is sovereign over this time of testing, and is calling to us in these trials. In this hour of judgement, he is peeling back the scraps of rag with which we clothe our lives to hide our destitution. He is summoning us to recognise the fundamental truth of our existence in this world. For all the unexpected and extraordinary circumstances we now face, we have not stumbled into some new condition. It is simply the human condition set more vividly before our eyes. Outside of Christ, we are always ‘destitute and devoid of all good things’, says Calvin.We are never not in desperate need of resources that we do not have. 

If there were no such resources—if this world were all there is, if we were simply the result of blind and indifferent natural processes—this global crisis would be no gift. But we live as God’s creatures in the theatre of his grace, and he has not left us helpless. Calvin again:

For in Christ he offers all happiness in place of our misery, all wealth in place of our neediness; in him he opens to us the heavenly treasures that our whole faith may contemplate his beloved Son, our whole expectation depend upon him, and our whole hope cleave to and rest in him…whatever we need and whatever we lack is in God, and in our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom the Father willed all the fullness of his bounty to abide so that we may all draw from it as from an overflowing spring.3

In the anxiety of our trials and the pain of our destitution, the gift God offers is himself. In Christ, he has opened to us the heavenly treasures of his own abundant bliss and goodness: fulness in place of emptiness, happiness in place of misery, rest in place of fear, life in place of death.

Although we cannot cultivate our lives or the lives of those we love, as people, pastors, churches and nations, we are not left destitute. What we are left with, says Webster, ‘much to our disappointment usually’, is prayer. As he explains:

Prayer is speech addressed to God in which we ask for help with an urgency and intensity which can only make sense if we really are in dire straits. Prayer is that basic human action which corresponds to our incapacity, to our unsuitability for what is required of us, and therefore to the utter necessity of the merciful intervention of God.4

In our straitened circumstances—shut in our homes, waiting and helpless—what a gift we are being offered. God is revealing to us a more realistic understanding of ourselves and our society—our ‘incapacity’ and ‘unsuitability for what is required of us’. And he is offering all his riches in his Son. 

This means that maybe the most urgent gift we can ask for at this time is the gift of prayer. That we might pray as individuals. That we might pray as families. That even in our scattering and separation we might pray as churches. That in this time of crisis, the leaders and nations of the world might fall to their knees and cry with urgency and intensity for the merciful intervention of God. As the King of Nineveh might tell us were he here (Jonah 3:9): ‘Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.’

[1] John Webster, The Culture of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), 143. Although Webster is writing about ‘theological existence’—the ‘anatomy of a theologian’— what he says applies equally to our understanding of human existence in the light of the gospel.

[2] Calvin, Institutes, III.xx.1. Webster quotes this section from Calvin in this section of Culture of Theology.

[3] Calvin, Institutes, III.xx.1.

[4] Webster, Culture of Theology, 143-44.

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